Wharton Hosts Silicon Valley’s “Supernova” Powwow


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Kevin Werbach, the founding organizer of the annual Supernova conference, had a tough job: he was supposed to explain to a Wharton auditorium full of some of the world’s most digitally connected professionals why there were so few electrical outlets available for their laptops, cameras, iPads, and smartphones. It wasn’t an oversight, he said, but a deliberate choice made by the faculty during the design of Hunstman Hall. The idea was to discourage the use of laptops, which were considered a distraction.

The crowd of executives, government officials, intellectuals, and entrepreneurs seemed amused, if slightly shocked at the idea. This was Supernova’s ninth year, and the first time the technology conference had been held outside the San Francisco Bay area—which had always been a natural place for Internet investors, regulators, and myriad other Silicon Valley types to discuss phenomena ranging from “microblogging to interactive video to 3D virtual worlds.” But Wharton has co-hosted the event since 2005, and this year Werbach, an associate professor of legal studies and business ethics here, brought the “Network Age” powwow to his academic home turf.

Supernova’s East Coast debut featured speakers from corporate goliaths like Google and Comcast, newer ventures like Clickable and Blip.tv, advocacy groups like Public Knowledge, and government representatives from the FCC and the office of Senator John Kerry. And though the attendees physically gathered in Philadelphia, Supernova also served as a demonstration that much of a conference this tech-driven can actually take place online. Those who weren’t able to attend in person could watch a live video feed on the Web, and participate in the conversion via a Twitter feed that provided a steady chorus of audience reactions and opinion that appeared in real time, projected on the large screen beside each speaker’s PowerPoint slides. At times the chatter was almost too much, at least according to one tweet: “Having trouble balancing between listening to the panel speakers and following the Twitter stream.”

In his remarks, David Cohen L’81, an executive at Comcast and also the current chairman of Penn’s board of trustees, used Werbach’s electrical outlet story as a cautionary tale about the dangers of regulatory interference. “The Wharton faculty is hardly an unenlightened group of people,” he said, and yet in retrospect “the unintended consequences of that rule produced a silly result.” That same law of unintended consequences applies to government regulation, he warned, and even with the best of intentions FCC rules or legislation can impede the incentive to invest. (Comcast takes that view with regard to network neutrality, a policy it has lobbied the FCC to drop in favor of permitting telecom companies to sell Internet access on a tiered-service model, whereby customers willing to pay for preferential treatment—for example, a level of service that would transfer their own data packets more quickly than other Internet traffic—would be able to buy it. Comcast and others argue that this would provide an incentive for them to invest more in expanding the Internet’s infrastructure.)

As the conversation shifted from regulation to privacy, though, Cohen laid out the fine line that all Internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast must walk when working with the government. The debate about how long ISPs should retain data that individually identify customers reflects this tension: “There is some data that we have to preserve for billing purposes,” he said, but possession of this tracking data also forces ISPs to strike a balance between privacy concerns of customers and the security concerns of law enforcement. During a recent federal investigation of a child predator, he recalled, by the time authorities had determined the suspect was a Comcast customer, “we had already deleted the data and were not able to identify the child predator for the enforcement authorities.”

Another session raised the complications of even defining privacy, when Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd took the stage alongside blogger Jeff Jarvis. Boyd had spent the last two months examining all the news stories generated when Facebook’s change in privacy policy sparked customer outrage. What became clear, she said, is that we now use the word privacy to mean a lot of different things. It could describe the security features of our online banking, the digital trail we leave behind as we surf the Web, or just the exposure of embarrassing information we didn’t intend to release to the Internet at large. It’s this last scenario, says Boyd, that can trigger the loudest outcry. “Privacy is about understanding a social situation, and how information will flow,” she said, and “people scream ‘privacy’ when they feel as though they’ve lost control,” when information about them suddenly escapes into the world in a way they didn’t expect. When government enters the picture, this shifting definition can complicate legislation, because as we think about regulation “we’re also going to be debating what notions of privacy we actually care about.”

Jarvis agreed that the definition of privacy is shifting, but he worries that “we talk so much about privacy, privacy, privacy, that we risk giving up the benefits of publicness that the Internet makes possible.” These could be societal benefits, like the ability to track epidemic outbreaks through geo-tagged Twitter posts, or very personal benefits like the support that Jarvis himself received from readers after blogging about his own experience with prostate cancer. It also risks reducing the sense of ownership that society feels over the public sphere itself. “What’s public is a public good, and we the public own it,” he said. When a concert promoter tries to prevent the public from taking photos in Lincoln Park because the space has been rented for a show, Jarvis likens it to theft. “That’s our space, dammit!” he said. “You are robbing from the public!”

The ethos of the conference amplified Jarvis’s point, as his comments were broadcast over the Internet for free. But Supernova was documented by low-tech means as well. Jonny Goldstein, an artist and “graphic recorder,” was stationed just offstage with a double-wide whiteboard and full palette of colored markers. Through each speaker and panel discussion, he literally sketched the concepts and the issues being explored, translating abstract business speak into a colorful storyboard, like a cross between a political cartoonist and a street artist doing high speed portraiture. Of course, digital photos were taken for posterity, and before long they’d been uploaded to the picture sharing website Flickr.

Sean Whiteman LPS’11


©2010 The Pennsylvania Gazette
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